"The short-term, dopamine driven feedback loops we've created are destroying how society works…No civil discourse, no cooperation: misinformation, mistruth….This is a global problem…I feel tremendous guilt"
Last Saturday, the 2nd March 2019, I deleted my Facebook account. I created a new one the very same day, but for a brief few hours I felt a sense of freedom and independence that I hadn't felt for years. It was as if shackles had been removed and my body could stretch and start to heal itself. I had let go a weight that had been holding me down. It felt great. Why was that?
Maybe it's down to the increasing realisation that on Facebook you aren't a customer, you are a 'user'. Or perhaps more accurately, the 'product'. On Facebook the customers are the advertisers; you are simply the commodity they trade in. And in order to maximise that commercial value they need to track every aspect of your life to increase the scope of your profiles dataset.
Maybe it's down to the increasing undermining of public health and democracy through the destructive design principles that appeal to our base psychology and the misinformation, mistrust and anger that the platform facilitates and in name of growth and user-engagement.
Or maybe it's just the fact that, for many, Facebook gives the illusion of social connectivity. What once was carried out via phone calls, letters and face to face meetings has now degenerated into Likes, brief posts, and remote viewing of carefully curated profiles of others.
It felt liberating getting rid of 12 years of data (300mb). Every Like and Reaction, Post, Conversation, Group history, Friend, Friend Request Sent, Friend Removed, and a crazy amount of unexpected details on other people that Facebook stored…..all gone. Or so Facebook promise and I hope. That said, I can't delete my profile data that Facebook sold on without my permission. Yes Cambridge Analytica and the like, which took datasets of user profiles of millions of Facebook users. These are out in the wild and now in the hands of who knows.
To see the data Facebook holds on you please go to the Facebook Settings > Your Facebook Information > Access Your Information.
I re-joined Facebook with a new profile because I do believe it has benefits that I'd like to remain using. I will just engage on the platform with a more informed understanding of how it operates and what the potential costs are to me and my privacy. For instance, my village has a bustling community but one which is based on the FB. Staying aware of events and village issues and using that to engage with the people and local businesses in my community is great. The district selling page also removes the need to utilise eBay so often. I've found FB very useful in researching my family tree and staying in touch with overseas friends and family. I also closely follow key people involved in the study of Classics. What I will avoid is sharing details about myself, liking things, politics, or using Facebook to read 'news'.
This article was inspired by reading 'Zucked' by Roger McNamee. He is a long standing Silicon Valley investor and one time adviser to Mark Zuckerberg. I wholehearted recommend you read this book. It explains in great detail how Facebook and Google are affecting our society, and confirms many of the notions that I hold, whilst introducing a few that were entirely new to me. Hand in hand with this book I'd also recommend 'Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now' by Jaron Lanier. He was a key figure in the development of virtual reality. I'm only promoting these books because of the wise content which I think empowers us as individuals.
Both authors touch on the major issues with social media, such as the exploitation of human psychology to promote addictive dopamine inducing Social-validation feedback loops. Watch this from Tristan Harris about the concept of 'Brain Hacking' Brain Hacking. It's shocking that in 2016 Chamath Palihapitiya, former president of user growth Facebook made this admission:
"The short-term, dopamine driven feedback loops we've created are destroying how society works…No civil discourse, no cooperation: misinformation, mistruth….This is a global problem…I feel tremendous guilt".
A contributing factor in the polarisation of society and view-points, most noticeably to me in politics, is the compound effect of 'Filter Bubbles' and 'Preference Bubbles'. These aren't new but in recent years social media platforms have pushed them to the fore. Prior to the last 10 years people were exposed to a much wider range of opinions in their lives with professionally curated news being the primary source of news and events. Facebooks News Feed and advertising space, suggesting and promoting articles which may or may not be true, adverts and potential groups you might want to join are all via algorithms based on your user profile and the history of behaviour. It gives the illusion of allowing a user to be in control but in reality it pushes the content Facebook think you want to see. This is a Filter Bubble. A 'Preference Bubble' is where we choose to follow things we agree with, join groups of likeminded people and block those views or people we don’t agree with. Both of these undermine critical thinking and more reasonable voices in favour of more and more exposure to views like our own. Naturally it can push people to more extreme views. The former is applied by Facebook and the latter by ourselves. This can lead to the isolation of huge swathes of the global population, undermining public health, democracy, and feeding the worst aspects of humanity, rather than supporting the best.
Another goal of Facebook is to maximising user engagement. Roger McNamee suggests that:
"Getting a user outraged, anxious, or afraid is a powerful way to increase engagement. Anxious and fearful users check the site more frequently. Outraged users share more content to let other people know what they should also be outraged about. Best of all from Facebooks perspective, outraged or fearful users in an emotionally hijacked state become more reactive to further emotionally charged content….Facebook knows so much about each user that they can tune News Feed to promote emotional responses. They cannot do this all the time to every user, but they do it far more than users realise".
Maximising user engagement is being extended outside of Facebook more and more. Facebook deploys trackers, tiny pieces of code dropped into the browser, to follow users around the web. If you "log in with Facebook" or hit a Like button on a non-Facebook website, that activity and behaviour is recorded by FB and added to the growing data profile they have on you and which is then made available to advertisers in order to generate the massive profits Facebook makes. Googles are the masters of tracking you with their search engine, free apps, Google Connect, and massive Google Ads network. We are now entering an age of Surveillance Capitalism. Check out Shoshana Zuboff's new book on the topic: 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism'.
So, this isn't a call for you to boycott your social media, but rather to get you thinking more about how these social media giants work and what motivates them, reflecting on the impact that social media is having on you, the wider society and most importantly your children, who are far more susceptible to the addictive psychological techniques used by social media companies. I'd encourage you to be more aware of, and find strategies to minimise, the negative impact of social media on your lives. Also remember that 'users' have leverage with the social media companies. Platforms cannot survive without their attention and the revenue generating advertisers won't pay money to be associated with platforms that are perceived as detrimental to their brands.
Things I would recommend:
- Use social media less generally, sharing less about yourself
- Think about which aspects of your life you are happy for Facebook to share with other parties. Facebook have a history of doing this with or without your permission.
- Avoid using Google or Facebook Connect to log into other sites. These extend the range of surveillance that FB and Google have to the activity you carry out on other websites
- Use a tracking blocker browser addin or application so you can't be followed around the web by Facebook and Google
- Don’t press Like buttons around the web
- Avoid using Google products, the worst culprit for surveillance
- Don’t get drawn into social media based arguments - it's not good for your health!
- Consider what sources of information that you read on the internet. Who produced it and why, who might it benefit, and what authority did the author have.
- Seek out opposing viewpoints and acknowledge the impact of Filter or Preference Bubbles